In March 2020, Angelique Kidjo was set to headline at Carnegie Hall to celebrate her upcoming 60th birthday and commemorate the 60th anniversary of 17 sub-Saharan countries gaining their independence from Europe. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic forced the West African singer and activist to delay the show indefinitely and ponder her next steps to stay encouraged.
“I sat in my living room in New York completely disgusted,” Kidjo, 61, said. “I worked so hard for this show, and I was so looking forward to it.”
Now, Kidjo anticipates reliving some of that magic on stage when she comes to the Rialto Center for the Arts on Jan. 22. The vivacious Beninese-American vocalist plans to play selections from her three-decade career and current LP, “Mother Nature,” a continuum for her brand of bridging her vibrant native vibes with rhythms and musical flavors from around the world.
“Mother Nature” was originally a concept album that Kidjo started writing in 2019 themed around natural elements. The pitch-perfect superstar and best-selling author behind the 2014 memoir “Spirit Rising” picked the project back up after she retreated to her home in France with her husband, producer Jean Hebrail, when the global shutdown occurred.
“To avoid becoming crazy, you gotta work,” Kidjo said. “Since I started my career, I’ve never stopped that much. I was always working, and I can count on one hand how many times I took two weeks off.”
Two weeks after arriving in France, Kidjo’s father-in-law passed away. The following week, celebrated Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango died. To pass the time, Kidjo was paying attention to the Black Lives Matter protests and Nigerians facing brutality from SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a Nigerian police unit) in the headlines and became invigorated by youth protests from coast to coast.
While Kidjo’s home recording studio was being remodeled, she recalibrated her original idea for “Mother Nature.” She wanted to collaborate with younger African artists like Burna Boy, Mr. Eazi, Sampa the Great, Yemi Alade and Shungudzo to bring their social consciousness into the mix. The multilingual artist’s 13-track album morphed into touching on topics like peace, harmony, love, equality, history, life and patriotism.
Credit: PATRICK FOUQUE
Credit: PATRICK FOUQUE
“I told myself I would take the best out of all of these things and be positive,” Kidjo, one of the performers to open the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, said. “I decided I was going to expand this conversation. It was a reality check; I had to hold onto music and come out with something that makes sense.”
“I wanted the album to be an open platform for the new generation of African musicians to tell me what world they want to live in, what moves them, and what topics they want to talk about,” Kidjo adds. “It was an absolutely amazing experience for me. I’ve been waiting so long to see the youth get out of the apathy and to become the change that they want to see.”
One of “Mother Nature’s” signature cuts, “Take It Or Leave It,” features Atlanta hip-hop duo Earthgang and is produced by James Poyser. Kidjo ran across their music during the pandemic, and a music consultant later suggested to her they work together.
When Kidjo finally performed at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 5, 2021, Olu (aka Johnny Venus), one-half of Earthgang, joined her at Carnegie Hall to perform “Take It Or Leave It” and “Free & Equal.”
Credit: Sofia and Mauro
Credit: Sofia and Mauro
“I had time on my hands, so I was able to dig deeper into things,” Kidjo, a 2021 Artist-in-Residence at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, said. “I wanted young people from the diaspora so I could hear the generation gap. We’re busy doing music in our corner, but what we are doing is also the legacy of the people that have come before us. It’s celebrating our tradition of transmission and oral empowerment.”
“Mother Nature” earned the four-time Grammy winner three more nominations this year. Also a Recording Academy national trustee, she fully supports the music advocacy organization postponing the ceremony and telecast to later this year. “We need to be safe,” she says. “It should be an example for all music awards to be open to the world. When we’re doing music, everyone needs to be accounted for. It has to be something that’s bigger than music; it’s what it means to be a world citizen if you’re an artist.”
Charity, generosity and compassion remain priorities for Kidjo. The first African woman to be named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2002, the benevolent humanitarian launched her own nonprofit organization, Batonga Foundation, in 2006 to empower young African women to become future leaders. One program she’s extremely proud of is offering small grants and seed funds to aspiring Black women entrepreneurs across the African villages.
“I’m healthy today because of UNICEF’s truck for vaccinations,” said Kidjo, who admits to having needle phobia. “I’ve seen my mom and dad go out of their way to help people that are not their family. I can’t tell you how many kids my parents sent to school with one paycheck apart from us.”
“I know it’s possible because I didn’t get here without getting help,” Kidjo adds. “I want women and girls to have financial freedom and participate in the world economy. I help those girls because I want our continent to get out of poverty and allow them to be leaders in their families and their communities. We all have the capacity to bring change to people’s lives because they help us transform our lives, too. Everything is just linked to everything; we can’t live alone, so we have to live together.”
Kidjo is returning as host of Tiny Desk meets globalFEST from Jan. 18-20, allowing her to see more international musical newcomers. The intuitive entertainer considers it an honor and privilege to now be called a legend and icon by young performers. Experiencing new sounds and voices are what encourage her to pay success forward.
“Let’s use music as a weapon of peace and conversation,” Kidjo says. “It’s not easy to be a woman of color in this business, but it’s really important for me as an artist to see what’s going on in the world. You have to know what you are in for, be strong, and stand your ground. The pandemic is there, but it doesn’t stop creativity and the power of it.”
8 p.m. Jan. 22. $50-$120. The Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St. NW, Atlanta. 404-413-9849, rialto.gsu.edu.